Color Theory for Digital Displays: A Quick Reference: Part I

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: January 23, 2006

This article is Part I of a quick reference on color theory for digital displays. It is the first in a series of articles about the use of color in application program user interfaces and on Web sites.

Primary Colors of Additive Color Synthesis

“In additive color synthesis, all hues of the visible spectrum of light are mixtures of various proportions of one, two, or three of the primary colors of light.”

Computer monitors display information using the RGB (Red-Green-Blue) color model. An RGB monitor synthesizes colors additively by selectively illuminating each of its pixel’s red, green, and blue phosphor dots at varying levels of intensity. The light from a pixel’s three phosphor dots blends together to synthesize a single color. In additive color synthesis, all hues of the visible spectrum of light are mixtures of various proportions of one, two, or three of the primary colors of light:

red Red color swatch (#FF0000)   green Green color swatch (#00FF00)   blue Blue color swatch (#0000FF)

Figure 1 shows how the primary colors combine to create the secondary colors.

Figure 1—Primary and secondary colors of additive synthesis

Primary and secondary colors of additive synthesis

 

In additive synthesis, equal proportions of two primary colors combine to create the secondary colors. Equal proportions of all three primary colors combine to create white (#FFFFFF).

 

The complementary color for a primary color is the secondary color of which it does not comprise a part.

For more information about complementary colors, see Color Harmony. Color Harmony

Secondary and Intermediate Colors

Secondary colorscyan, yellow, and magenta—consist of equal proportions of two primary colors, as follows:

green Green color swatch + blue Blue color swatch = cyan Cyan color swatch (#00FFFF)
red Red color swatch

+

green Green color swatch

=

yellow Yellow color swatch (#FFFF00)
red Red color swatch

+

blue Blue color swatch

=

magenta Magenta color swatch

(#FF00FF)

The complementary color for a secondary color is the primary color that does not comprise part of the mixture that forms the secondary color.

For more information about complementary colors, see Color Harmony. Color Harmony

Intermediate colorslight chartreuse, orange, hot pink, bright violet, azure blue, and chrysoprase green—consist of equal proportions of adjacent primary and secondary colors, as follows:

green Green color swatch + yellow Yellow color swatch = light chartreuse Light chartreuse color swatch (#99FF00)
red Red color swatch + yellow Yellow color swatch = orange Orange color swatch (#FF9900)
red Red color swatch + magenta Magenta color swatch = hot pink Hot pink color swatch (#FF0099)
blue Blue color swatch + magenta Magenta color swatch =   bright violet Bright violet color swatch (#9900FF)
blue Blue color swatch + cyan Cyan color swatch = azure blue Azure blue color swatch (#0099FF)
green Green color swatch + cyan Cyan color swatch = chrysoprase green Chrysoprase green color swatch (#00FF99)

Note—Throughout this article, I’ve used colors from the Web-safe palette in the examples. While it’s no longer necessary to restrict one’s use of color on the Web, doing so in these examples simplifies their scope. Because the Web palette comprises only 216 colors, the hexadecimal values of intermediate colors result from only approximately equal proportions of the primary colors.

Color Wheel

In Figure 2, the color wheel shows the primary, secondary, and intermediate colors.

Figure 2—Color wheel

The solid triangle in the center indicates the relative positions of the primary colors; the inverted triangle, the secondary colors; and the triangular color swatches represent the intermediate colors.

Color wheel

Color Temperature

“Color temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color.”

Color temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color. The long-wavelength, warm colors range from red (#FF0000), with a wavelength of 700 millimicrons, through light chartreuse, with a wavelength of 535 millimicrons. The short-wavelength, cool colors range from green (#00FF00), with a wavelength of 500 millimicrons, through violet (#9933FF), with a wavelength of 400 millimicrons. On the color wheel, magenta (#FF00FF) and the colors on the left are warm colors; green (#00FF00) and the colors on the right, cool colors. In any given visual composition, a color’s temperature is relative to that of its surrounding colors.

Contrasting colors that are adjacent to a color can also influence its temperature through a simultaneous-contrast effect, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3—Simultaneous-contrast effect

Example of simultaneous-contrast effect

In this figure, red (#FF0000) appears warmer and slightly yellowish when surrounded by light chartreuse (#99FF00), but cooler and slightly bluish when surrounded by bright violet (#9900FF).

 

For more information about the simultaneous-contrast effect, see Color-Contrast Effects.Color-Contrast Effects

Contrasts in color temperature also create spatial illusions. Warm colors like red (#FF0000) appear to advance, while cool colors like blue (#0000FF) appear to recede. Areas in warm colors also appear larger than areas in cool colors.

Tertiary, Achromatic, and Other Synthesized Colors

Tertiary colors are mixtures of complementary colors—which appear directly opposite one another on a color wheel. Because they contain some proportion of all three primary colors, they are relatively neutral. Also, they tend to harmonize with most other colors, because of their interrelationship with them. The following are some examples of tertiary colors:

1 light
chartreuse
Light chartreuse color swatch + 2 bright
violet
Bright violet color swatch = lavender Deep lavender color swatch

#9966FF

3 orange Orange color swatch + 1 azure
blue
Azure blue color swatch = peach Peach color swatch

#FF9966

3 hot pink Hot pink color swatch + 2 chrysoprase
green
Chrysoprase green color swatch = light
orchid
Pale orchid color swatch

#FF99FF

Note—Throughout this article, I’ve used colors from the Web-safe palette in the examples. While it’s no longer necessary to restrict one’s use of color on the Web, doing so in these examples simplifies their scope. Because the Web palette comprises only 216 colors, the proportional values shown for tertiary and synthesized colors are approximate.

Achromatic or neutral colors include white, shades of gray, and black. White (#FFFFFF) consists of equal proportions of all three primary colors at their full intensities. Black (#000000) is the absence of color. The Web-safe grays—silver (#CCCCCC), medium gray (#999999), dark gray (#666666), and charcoal gray (#333333)—also consist of equal proportions of all three primary colors, but at increasingly lower intensities.

red Red color swatch + green Green color swatch + blue Blue color swatch = white White color swatch #FFFFFF
red Red color swatch green Green color swatch blue Blue color swatch = black Black color swatch #000000

Synthesized colors usually consist of unequal proportions of two or three of the primary colors—for example:

2 red Red color swatch + 5 green Green color swatch = bright
chartreuse
Bright chartreuse color swatch #66FF00
5 red Red color swatch + 2 green Green color swatch = tangerine Tangerine color swatch #FF6600
2 red Red color swatch + 5 blue Blue color swatch = bright
blue-violet
Bright blue-violet color swatch #6600FF
2 red Red color swatch + 3 green Green color swatch + 3 blue Blue color swatch = aqua Aqua color swatch #66FFFF
4 red Red color swatch + 1 green Green color swatch + 1 blue Blue color swatch = coral Coral color swatch #FF6666

Hexadecimal Color Values

Throughout this series of articles, I've used hexadecimal values to specify the RGB (Red-Green-Blue) values of colors, as is typical when specifying colors on Web pages. For example, in the hexadecimal value for orchid, #CC66FF, CC represents the amount of red, which is 80%; 66, the amount of green, 40%; and FF, the amount of blue, 100%.

Table 1 shows the six equivalent decimal and hexadecimal values that specify red, green, and blue values for all Web-safe colors, with their corresponding percentages. Colors other than Web-safe colors can comprise any values of red, green, and blue.

Table 1—RGB values in Web-safe colors and their percentages

Decimal Hexadecimal Percentage
0 00 0%
51 33 20%
102 66 40%
153 99 60%
204 CC 80%
255 FF 100%

RGB values indicate the intensity of each of the primary colors of light—ranging from 0%, the darkest value, which indicates the absence of a color, to 100%, the lightest value, which indicates that a color is at its full intensity. Variations in the intensity of the primary colors of light result in different hues with different levels of value and chroma.

For information about the color properties—hue, value, and chroma—see Color Properties.Color Properties

Color Properties

Chromatic colors—that is, all colors except white, shades of gray, and black—have three dimensions, or properties:

  • hue—A perceptible color that corresponds to a unique, dominant wavelength of light.
  • value—The relative lightness or darkness of a color.
  • chroma, or saturation—The relative purity and intensity of a chromatic color.

Hue

A perceptible color, or hue, corresponds to a unique, dominant wavelength of light in the spectrum—for example, the colors that appear on the color wheel shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4—Hues on the color wheel

Hues on a color wheel

 

The primary and secondary hues are full-chroma colors; the intermediate hues, high-chroma colors.

 

All spectral hues result from mixing different combinations and proportions of the three primary colors—red, green, and blue. For example, Figure 5 shows various hues of violet (#9933FF).

Figure 5—Hues of violet (#9933FF)

Web-safe hues of violet

 

 

These hues of violet range from bright red-violet (#CC00FF) to blue-violet (#6633FF) and include hues with differing values and chroma levels.

 

Value

“Value describes the relative lightness or darkness of a color.”

Value describes the relative lightness or darkness of a color. This property applies to both chromatic colors and achromatic colors—which have no hue or chroma. Figure 6 shows a gray scale comprising achromatic colors.

Figure 6—Achromatic colors—a Web-safe gray scale

Values in this gray scale range from the highest, white, through several shades of gray, to the lowest, black.

Web-safe gray scale

By combining spectral hues with white or black, different values are achieved. A tint combines a hue with white; a tone, with a mixture of white and black—that is, a shade of gray; and a shade, with black. Dark hues, or shades, have low values; light hues, or tints, high values. For example, the following hues are values of red (#FF0000):

carnation pink Pale pink color swatch (#FF99CC)   Tint
Empire ruby red Empire ruby red color swatch (#CC3333)   Tone
deep burnt sienna Deep burnt sienna color swatch (#660000)   Shade

The intrinsic values of different high-chroma colors vary, as shown in Figures 7 and 8. At the extremes of the value scale, the brightest yellow (#FFFF00) is much lighter than the brightest blue (#0000FF).

Figure 7—Colors have different intrinsic values

In this value scale, the values of the high-chroma colors from the color wheel range from the highest, yellow, to the lowest, blue. Colors that are vertically aligned have approximately the same value.

Intrinsic values of colors on the color wheel

Figure 8—Intrinsic values of colors

Relative values of colors on the color wheel

 

This figure shows the relative values of the colors on the color wheel in non-Web-safe grays.

 

The human eye cannot easily distinguish differences in value below 15%, especially at the light and dark extremes of a scale. Optimally, minimal differences in value should range between 15 to 25%.

Chroma

“Chroma, or saturation, describes the relative purity and intensity of a chromatic color.”

Chroma, or saturation, describes the relative purity and intensity of a chromatic color. Chroma levels range from the brilliance of vivid, highly saturated colors to completely neutral grays.

Highly saturated, high-chroma colors comprise a narrow band of wavelengths and, thus, contain very little or no gray and no white. Medium-chroma colors comprise more different wavelengths and, thus, contain more gray. Desaturated, low-chroma colors comprise many different wavelengths and contain a lot of gray, white, or black. Achromatic colorsgray, white, and black—have chroma levels as low as zero. Figure 9 shows a range of chroma levels, while Figure 10 shows various hues that have similar chroma levels.

Figure 9—A range of chroma levels, including pure cyan (#00FFFF), Caribbean blue (#33CCCC), Mediterranean blue (#339999), deep blue-green (#336666), and charcoal gray (#333333)

Range of chroma levels

Figure 10—Hues with medium chroma, including yellow green (#99CC33), cobalt violet (#CC3399), violet (#9933FF), Seurat blue (#3399CC), and cadmium orange (#FF9933)

Hues with medium chroma

Color Harmony

“A harmonious color scheme depends upon the balance between all three properties of color—hue, value, and chroma.”

A harmonious color scheme depends upon the balance between all three properties of color—hue, value, and chroma. You can achieve color harmony by using complementary, analogous, or monochromatic colors. It is also important to balance the value and chroma of the hues in a color scheme. You can use the five methods of color harmony involving complementary colors either alone or in combination with the analogous, monochromatic, tonal, or chromatic methods.

The nine principal methods of achieving color harmony include

  • five types of color harmony achieved using complementary colors, as follows:
    • complementary color harmony—using two colors that are directly opposite another color on a color wheel
    • split-complementary color harmony—using a color and the two colors that are immediately adjacent to its complementary color
    • triadic color harmony—using three colors that are equidistant from one another on a color wheel
    • tetradic color harmony—using four colors that are equidistant from one another on a color wheel
    • tetradic split-complementary color harmony—using two pairs of split-complements, which appear immediately adjacent to complementary colors on a color wheel
  • analogous color harmony—using a range of colors that appear adjacent to one another on a color wheel
  • monochromatic color harmony—using hues of the same color that have different levels of value and/or chroma
  • tonal color harmony—using colors with similar values
  • chromatic color harmony—using colors with similar levels of chroma, or saturation

Complementary Color Harmony

Complementary colors appear directly opposite one another on a color wheel—for example, green (#00FF00) and magenta (#FF00FF), as shown in Figure 11. Each pair of complementary colors comprises a warm color and a cool color. While complementary colors contain relatively balanced proportions of their primary colors, their values and chroma levels may vary.

Figure 11—Complementary color harmony

Complementary colors

Combining equal proportions of two complementary colors produces white (#FFFFFF).

Split-Complementary Color Harmony

A color’s two split-complementary colors appear immediately adjacent to its complementary color on a color wheel. Figure 12 shows an example of split-complementary color harmony.

Figure 12—Split-complementary color harmony

Split-complementary colors

 

The split-complements of azure blue (#0099FF) are tangerine (#FF6600) and light mustard (#FFCC00).

 

Triadic Color Harmony

Triadic complementary colors comprise three colors that are equidistant from one another on a color wheel. Figure 13 shows an example of triadic color harmony.

Figure 13—Triadic color harmony

Triadic complementary colors

 

The triadic complementary colors are cyan (#00FFFF), yellow (#FFFF00), and magenta (#FF00FF).

 

Combining equal proportions of three triadic complementary colors produces white (#FFFFFF).

Tetradic Color Harmony

Tetradic complementary colors comprise four colors that are equidistant from one another on a color wheel. Figure 14 shows an example of tetradic color harmony.

Figure 14—Tetradic color harmony

Tetradic complementary colors

 

The tetradic complementary colors are green (#00FF00), azure blue (#0099FF), magenta (#FF00FF), and orange (#FF9900).

 

Tetradic Split-Complementary Color Harmony

Tetradic split-complementary colors comprise two pairs of split-complements that appear immediately adjacent to complementary colors on a color wheel. Figure 15 provides an example, showing two pairs of split-complements.

Figure 15—Tetradic split-complementary color harmony

Tetradic split-complementary colors

 

This tetradic split-complement comprises two pairs of split-complements: tangerine (#FF6600) and light mustard (#FFCC00) and turquoise blue (#00CCFF) and light azurite blue (#0066FF).

 

Analogous Color Harmony

Analogous color harmony combines closely related hues that are often rather muted and contain either only two primary colors or, if they contain all three primary colors, two in relatively weak proportions. Analogous colors are a range of colors that appear immediately adjacent to one another on a color wheel—as in the example shown in Figure 16.

Figure 16—Analogous color harmony

Analogous colors

 

The analogous colors are orange (#FF9900), tangerine (#FF6600), red (#FF0000), light mustard (#FFCC00), and yellow (#FFFF00).

 

Monochromatic Color Harmony

Monochromatic color harmony combines hues of a single color that have varying levels of value and chroma. Optionally, a monochromatic color scheme can also include white, black, or shades of gray. The following example shows a monochromatic color scheme that includes neutral colors:

bright violet  Bright violet color swatch (#9900FF)   Hue
orchid  Orchid color swatch (#CC66FF)   Tint
lavender  Deep lavender color swatch (#9966FF)   Tone
deep violet  Deep violet color swatch (#6600CC)   Shade
white  White color swatch (#FFFFFF)   Neutral
charcoal gray Charcoal gray color swatch (#333333)   Neutral

Tonal Color Harmony

Tonal color harmony combines hues that have similar values. For example, a low-contrast tonal color scheme might include only tints, as the following example shows:

pale jade green  Pale jade green color swatch (#CCFFCC)   Tint
pale lilac  Pale lilac color swatch (#FFCCFF)   Tint
pale coral  Pale coral color swatch (#FFCCCC)   Tint
north-light blue  North-light blue color swatch (#CCCCFF)   Tint
ice blue  Ice blue color swatch (#CCFFFF)   Tint

A high-contrast tonal color scheme might include only tones, as shown in the following example:

phthalo green  Phthalo green color swatch (#00FF66)   Tone
light azurite blue  Light azurite blue color swatch (#0066FF)   Tone
blue-violet  Blue violet color swatch (#6633FF)   Tone
coral pink  Coral pink color swatch (#FF6699)   Tone

Another high-contrast tonal color scheme might include only shades, as shown in the following example:

aubergine purple  Amethyst color swatch (#663399)   Shade
teal  Teal color swatch (#006666)   Shade
ruby red  Ruby red color swatch (#993366)   Shade
Monet blue  Ruby red color swatch (#333399)   Shade

Chromatic Color Harmony

Chromatic color harmony combines hues that have similar chroma levels. For example, a high-contrast color scheme might include only medium-chroma hues, as in the following example:

cobalt violet  Deep raspberry color swatch (#CC3399)   Medium chroma hue
violet  Violet color swatch (#9933FF)   Medium chroma hue
Seurat blue  Pale Seurat blue color swatch (#CCCCFF)   Medium chroma hue
yellow-green  Yellow green color swatch (#99CC33)  

Medium chroma hue

Color Contrast

“A harmonious color scheme also depends upon choosing colors that contrast sufficiently with one another along the three dimensions of color—hue, value, and chroma.”

A harmonious color scheme also depends upon choosing colors that contrast sufficiently with one another along the three dimensions of color—hue, value, and chroma.

You can create color contrast through varying

  • hue while value and chroma remain relatively constant—See an example in Figure 17.
  • value while hue and chroma remain relatively constant—For examples, see Figures 18 and 19.
  • chroma while hue and value remain relatively constant—See Figure 20.
  • hue, value, and/or chroma—You can vary any two or all three of these color properties, as Figure 21 shows.

Figure 17—Color contrast through changing only hue—for example, the hues fuchsia (#CC33CC), olive green (#CCCC33), and Caribbean blue (#33CCCC)

Example of hue contrast

Figure 18—Color contrast through changing only value—for example, the shades bright fuchsia (#CC00CC), lilac (#CC66CC), and rose (#CC99CC)

Example of value contrast

Figure 19—Another example of achieving color contrast through changing only value—using cyan (#00FFFF), bright turquoise (#00CCCC), and peacock blue (#009999)

Example of value contrast

Figure 20—Color contrast through changing only chroma—for example, using bright violet (#9900FF), aubergine purple (#663399), and charcoal gray (#333333)

Example of chroma contrast

Figure 21—Color contrast through changing hue, value, and chroma

In this example, the hue and size of a carnation pink (#FF99CC) square appear to change, depending on its contrast with its background color.

Examples of color contrast

On the black background, the carnation pink square appears lighter, larger, and as though it were advancing toward the foreground. On the white background, it appears darker, smaller, and as though it were receding into the background. The black margin around the carnation pink square appears narrower than the white margin.

A simultaneous-contrast effect between the carnation pink square and the light chartreuse (#99FF00) background causes both of these complementary colors to appear dramatically intensified.

There is less contrast between the carnation pink square and the bright violet (#9900FF) background—which is also a high-chroma hue—because of their analogous color harmony.

For information about the simultaneous contrast effect and other color-contrast effects, see Color-Contrast Effects.Color-Contrast Effects

Read more:

For information about contrast effects, color dominance, and color balance, see “Color Theory for Digital Displays: A Quick Reference: Part II.”

Bibliography

Albers, Josef. Interaction of Color. Revised ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

Brewer, Cynthia A. “Color Use Guidelines for Data Representation.” Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved July 3, 2003.

Encyclopædia Britannica CD 99—Multimedia Edition. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, July 7, 1998.

Galitz, Wilbert O. User-Interface Screen Design. Boston: QED Publishing Group, 1993.

Garo, Laurie A. B. “Color Theory.” Virtual Geography Department. Updated June 21, 1999; retrieved July 3, 2003.

GretagMacbeth. “Munsell: The Universal Language of Color.” Retrieved July 10, 2003.

Grumbacher. Color Compass. New York: M. Grumbacher, 1972.

Itten, Johannes. The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color. Revised ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1974.

Kentie, Peter. Web Graphics Tools and Techniques. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press, 1997.

Niederst, Jennifer. Web Design in a Nutshell. Second ed. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2001.

Webster, Timothy. Web Designer’s Guide to Graphics: PNG, GIF, & JPEG. Indianapolis: Hayden Books, 1997.

16 Comments

im studying interior design in perth (AUST). One of my classes is applied colour, this site is great thanks from erin dineen

Oh, wow! This is the most informative site on non-pigment color ever!

I appreciate the education on RGB as primaries as opposed to the RYB standard.

Excellent discussion on complementary and harmonizing colors—invaluable tool for learning what “looks good” together!

Thanks very much,

Tom

This is one of the most extensive colour theory references for Web I’ve seen in a long time. Kudos for your efforts!

Pabini—This set of articles is awesome! Great reference for color. Thanks for posting this!—Russ

The colours are okay, but I need analogous colours for both primary and secondary colours and their names.

Thanks, everyone for your kind remarks.

Akinola—Figure 16 shows an example of analogous colors—the analogous colors for orange. Each color has a similar range of analogous colors. To create an analogous color scheme, you can use any color within its range of analogous colors. Here are more examples of analogous colors:

  • primary colors—Analogous colors for each primary color include its adjacent intermediate colors.
    • red—Analogous colors include orange and hot pink.
    • blue—Analogous colors include bright violet and azure blue.
    • green—Analogous colors include chrysoprase green and light chartreuse.
  • secondary colors—Analogous colors for each secondary color include its adjacent intermediate colors.
    • cyan—Analogous colors include azure blue and chrysoprase green.
    • yellow—Analogous colors include light chartreuse and orange.
    • magenta—Analogous colors include hot pink and bright violet.
  • intermediate colors—Analogous colors for each intermediate color include its adjacent primary and secondary colors.
    • light chartreuse—Analogous colors include green and yellow.
    • orange—Analogous colors include yellow and red.
    • hot pink—Analogous colors include red and magenta.
    • bright violet—Analogous colors include magenta and blue.
    • azure blue—Analogous colors include blue and cyan.
    • chrysoprase green—Analogous colors include cyan and green.

Please bear in mind that, beyond the primary and secondary colors, these color names are merely descriptive.

Genius! :)

I’ve always tried to create harmonic colour schemes, but I do it via trial and error, and it takes far too long.

Is there some kind of mathematical algorithm or equation that can be used to generate a harmonic palette from a single colour?

Ben—I’m not the right person to be asking about a mathematical algorithm or equation :-), but perhaps one of our readers can help you with that.

There are some tools on the Web that generate color schemes though—for example:

There are also good books that illustrate color schemes such as:

  • Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color
  • Color Harmony: A Guide to Creative Color Combinations
  • Color Index: Over 1100 Color Combinations, CMYK and RGB Formulas, for Print and Web Media

I’m making a Web site as part of my school project, and, well, this Web site has really cool information that helps during research!! Analogous colours always look good, I think! I’m going to be using purples—red purple and blue purples on my Web site. Verdana always rocks!! :)

I was just wondering whether mustard comes under neutral colours? Or not?

Thanks! :)

Gandhali—I’m glad you’ve found this information helpful. I agree with you about analogous colors.

Mustard is not a neutral color. While it’s akin to brown, its chroma is too high for a true neutral. It’s still very definitely a yellow. You can create neutrals by combining black and white to create grays; combining either two complementary colors or all three primary colors to create browns; or combining black or white with brown to create very dark browns, ivory, or beige.

I want more of these color combinations.

Question: What type of harmony do you call it if I have an image with yellow and black in it—like a road sign? Thank you.

That’s a monochromatic color scheme, but the emphasis is on value contrast rather than harmony.

Note that what you’re calling violet is not spectral violet, but a not-strictly-accurate synonym for purple. RGB monitors cannot display any wavelengths shorter than the blue primary. Some people perceive purple and violet as the same color, but others, myself included, do not. Monitors cannot reproduce true shorter-than-blue violet.

Good information….thanks!

This info will be useful for a Web analysis I have to do for school. However, where does brown fall into all this?

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